Half of Americans in face-recognition databases: report

Half of Americans in face-recognition databases: report
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A new report claims that half of all American adults have their images stored on law enforcement databases.

The report, titled "The Perpetual Lineup," from the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown Law Center released Tuesday criticizes what the authors' call the unchecked use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement.


The authors say the technology has led to the widespread surveillance of innocent individuals and worsened police racial profiling of African-Americans.

Alvaro Bedoya, a co-author of the report told reporters on a call Tuesday that in the past, law enforcement "never created a database that’s populated of law abiding people.” That's changed because of face recognition, he said.

“This contrasts with most people not being in fingerprint or DNA law enforcement records,” Bedoya explained.

The 150-page report called law enforcement’s use of face recognition technology unprecedented. Previously, biometric data of fingerprints and DNA came from criminal arrests and investigations. But the FBI now has a face-image database of non-criminals thanks to searches of 16 state’s driver’s license records.

The report also noted that face recognition was less accurate than fingerprinting.

Expanding use of this technology has the most pronounced effect on African-Americans, whose mug shots are overrepresented in databases, according to the report, because of disproportionate arrest rates. The report also cited FBI research that suggests face recognition technology is less accurate for African-Americans than whites or other groups.

Sakira Cook, policy counsel at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told reporters on the call that “supercharges discrimination and the over-policing of communities of color.”

Cook, Bedoya and other experts warned that face recognition systems without proper restrictions could lead to high rates of black individuals being wrongly convicted.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani warned of the dangers from the vast data on people without criminal convictions.

“Law enforcement uses this technology when individuals are engaged in first amendment protected activity,” said Guliani. “The Baltimore police were using face recognition technology in conjunction with social media to watch a Freddie Gray protest.

“These uses of face recognition ultimately chills speech,” Guliani added.

Civil rights groups sent a letter to the Justice Department (DOJ) on Tuesday in reaction to the report’s findings. The coalition of 50 groups called on the DOJ to investigate law enforcement’s use of facial recognition software.

“Face recognition technology has enormous civil liberties implications and its use must be closely examined to ensure that it is not violating Americans’ civil rights,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote jointly with other groups. “We stand ready to work with you to ensure that the voices of our communities are heard in this important, ongoing national conversation.”

The FBI declined to directly respond to the report but said that it “has made privacy and civil liberties integral to every decision” regarding face recognition technology.

An FBI spokesperson explained that FBI policy requires “two layers of human review before a candidate can be provided to an investigator.” Candidates are only provided in 12 percent of these requests and the information is only used “an investigative lead, not positive identification.”

While the report took issue with many aspects of face recognition, it didn't call for a ban on the technology, but instead better regulations.

Proposed measures include the FBI restricting use of face recognition “to investigations of serious crimes where FBI officials have probable cause to implicate the search subject.” It also calls for mug shots, not drivers licenses being the source for databases and increased police transparency on their use of the technology.

“What we’re asking government to do is to push the pause button until safeguards can be adopted,” Guliani said.

-- This story was updated at 5:16 p.m.